“Did’ya see it?” Was likely the question everyone in Santa Rosa asked that Saturday in 1924. “It” was the car driving through the streets all night with a flaming cross attached to the hood, while the passengers tossed cards announcing the Ku Klux Klan was here and not going away.

In the mid-1920s Sonoma county had the reputation of being the hotspot of Klan activity in the Bay Area – which was a kind of homecoming, as the fledgling KKK would have died on the vine if not for the man who used to be the county’s PR representative.

(RIGHT: The KKK left calling cards to intimidate and lay claim to a presence in the community)

This article really should be titled, “The SECOND Klan in Sonoma County” because an earlier generation of the Boyz n the Hood(s) was active here after the Civil War, and before that the seditious Knights of the Golden Circle were causing trouble during the war itself.

The second Klan was started in 1915 after a handful of men in Georgia were stirred up by D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking film, “The Birth of a Nation,” with its deeply racist portrayal of the Reconstruction era. In that twisted version of history, the “night riders” were not lynching and terrorizing the black populace but restoring justice for southern whites being victimized by former slaves.

During and after WWI the new Klan sputtered along adding only a few thousand members in the Deep South, although conditions were ripe for such a hate group to flourish. National discontent was particularly high during the “Red Summer” of 1919 when whites in about two dozen cities and town rioted, murdering several hundred African-Americans (some war veterans were lynched in their uniforms). There were thousands of labor strikes nationwide amid growing fears that we were on the verge of a Bolshevik-style revolution. Now toss into this kettle of fear and fuming anger a heaping portion of conservative resentment over women gaining the right to vote plus the general misery over the start of Prohibition.

The turnaround came about when the founder of the new Klan met PR agent Edward Young Clarke. A ne’er-do-well member of a prominent Atlanta publishing and newspaper family, Clarke had helped promote a few charities (and was sued by one for embezzling) but his main job reference was as protégé to Mondula “Mon” Leak, who founded the Southeastern Exhibit Association in 1917. The stated objective was to use a warehouse-like exhibit hall in downtown Atlanta to advertise Georgia places, products and services. The initial promotions seemed pretty random – a roofer, a company that made tents and a handful of chambers of commerce, for example. What all of them had in common was a sucker’s readiness to pay membership dues to Leak’s phony association.

This was a scam Leak had perfected when he was representing Sonoma county and other North Bay counties between 1909 – 1915. He was supported by dues from all our local Chambers and trade groups to promote the region in a traveling exhibit from a custom-made railcar, but the real attraction was another car on the train with a zoo/curiosities show where Leak charged admission. Presenting a little table boasting “the creations of Luther Burbank” and redwood bark gave him enough legitimacy to claim his exhibits were “educational” and avoid the taxes and fees communities usually charged carnival sideshows. In short, he was really a low-rent P.T. Barnum. The whole strange tale was told here earlier in “SONOMA COUNTY, FAMOUS FOR SHARKS AND LUCKY BEANS.”

Part of the genius of that scheme was that Leak didn’t collect dues from each town himself, but had a contract with an umbrella organization – the North Bay Counties Association, which later became the Redwood Empire Association – to do the job for him. That way, when a local chamber of commerce didn’t want to pay and complained they weren’t getting much bang for their buck (here’s looking at you, Healdsburg) their compatriots would shame them for not pulling their weight.

In his Georgia operation, Leak eliminated the middleman by creating his own association. Further, he told newspapers he planned to expand the association to include other southern states, where presumably mini-associations with a Leak director would sign up members, collect dues and funnel that money back to the Atlanta mothership. Essentially, he turned it into a sales network working on commissions.

After a couple of years Leak retired and handed the operation over to Clarke. All the historians seem to dismiss Clarke as something of a nitwit or at best, a lousy con artist, but I disagree. Clarke – or someone close to him – quickly took the Ku Klux Klan from its origins as a small, funky social group to an army of hate-driven zealots, and he did it by weaponizing Mon Leak’s plans.

Just as Leak created the Southeastern Exhibit Association as a front to sell memberships to town chambers and trade groups, Clarke and the national KKK were funded by regional “Realms” pooling contributions from local “Klaverns.” Now to join the Klan you had to pay (er, donate) dues, and it wasn’t cheap – ten dollars, or the equivalent to about $140 today. Of that $10 (which they called a “klectoken”), the largest chunk ($4) went to the local organizer, so he could work fulltime enrolling new members. His supervisor received another buck from the dues; the two of them were called, respectively, the Kleagle and King Kleagle. The regional manager was the Grand Goblin who was given fifty cents, and $2.00 went to the national organization. The rest went to Clarke personally, as he was now the Imperial Kleagle. In the hierarchy were also the Klokards, Kludds, Kladds, Kligrapps, Klaliffs, Klabees, Klexters and I swear I am not making up any of this krap.

That was at the end of 1920. In the months that followed Klan membership snowballed, as did the coffers of the organization. And it wasn’t just from membership dues; you were required to buy all your Klan swag from headquarters, including the robe, books, pamphlets, cardboard red crosses and little cards to scatter around your town announcing the Klan was there, plus other awful goodies. Soon Klan HQ was pulling in million$ a year and growth was exponential, with about four million guys wearing hoods by 1924.

Like most Americans, our local newspapers didn’t quite know what to make of the Ku Kluxers, but were definitely Klan curious. On its face the KKK was not much different than other fraternal orders like the Elks or Odd Fellows (sorry, gents) with a costume, secret handshakes and other silly rituals. Without explaining the real aims of the organization, the papers uncritically printed stories about their gatherings. This 1923 item from the Petaluma Argus announced the Klan had a North Bay presence:

NAPA, April 4 – More than 1000 hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan gathered somewhere in the hills of Napa county, participated in a strange ceremony round a fitfully flickering fire, silently and swiftly gathered their robes about them and disappeared into the night, as mysteriously as they appeared…

Then before Hallowe’en, the Press Democrat ran a screamer headline, “104 JOIN KU KLUX ORDER.” The front page article similarly pushed a idealized view of the KKK and their “awe-inspiring” ritual:

…Two hundred hooded klansmen, seeming phantoms in the pale moonlight of the evening, participated in the initiatory ceremony. Prior to the exercises only one or two of the masked klansmen, attired completely in white, were seen on the grounds. As if from nowhere, the 200 robe-clad figures marched from behind a small hill…ghost-like figures walked across the field while the figure of a klansman on horse back was silhouetted against the sky. A short time before the initiatory ceremony started, a huge cross, approximately 20 feet in height and situated in back of the American flag, was lighted, its rays shining on the line of hooded klansmen who walked to the small knoll…
Undated photo not in Sonoma county, but matching the 1923 ceremony described


The PD estimated there were about 300 cars of spectators watching the event. Among those swearing allegiance to the KKK were sixteen from Mare Island wearing their Navy uniforms.

About three weeks later was the first ceremony held in Sonoma County, on a hillside off Petaluma Hill Road. An estimated 2,000 people came to the invitation-only event. There were so many cars that afterwards, the PD said, “…traffic congestion at the exit gate for a time resembled the worst congestions of the old Cotati speedway days.”

Sonoma county’s widespread interest in the Klan in 1923 might be surprising, since a Klan organizer held a couple of meetings in Santa Rosa in 1922 but couldn’t draw much interest. And earlier that year, the PD had a scare headline “KU KLUX THREAT IN SONOMA COUNTY?” hyping news that a deputy had received an anonymous threat warning him to stop arresting troublemakers at Forestville dances. The deputy didn’t take it seriously and presumed it was written by the selfsame jerks. There were at least two other hoax KKK threats reported that year.

The splashy 1923 ceremonies were the peak of the Klan’s public events in Sonoma county, with a smaller initiation on Bennett Valley Road in June 1924 (the cross this time illuminated with light bulbs) and later in November, 25 women were initiated as members of the “Kamelias” in Santa Rosa.

(RIGHT: 1925 cartoon from The Rocky Mountain American, a KKK newspaper in Colorado)

But the KKK was quickly worming its way into everyday life. They donated food and other items to families with ill Klan members in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, and they presented a bible (“valued at $50”) to the Calistoga library. They held a “Ku Klux Klan funeral” for Santa Rosa resident William J. Reno, complete with reading from the book of Revelations and “vocal music of a hidden chorus.” And after a defense attorney accused the District Attorney of being in cahoots with the Klan to railroad his client, a prospective member of the jury volunteered he was also a klansman.

None of the Santa Rosa and Petaluma newspapers editorialized against the KKK, as far as I can tell, but all gave front page coverage to negative stories about Klan confrontations, legal and political, happening elsewhere in the nation. They also reported positive stories as well; one of the oddest photo captions I have ever read appeared in the Petaluma Argus: “Jew is Honored by Ku Klux Klan,” describing how dozens of hooded klansmen showed up uninvited to a tribute for an elderly shopkeeper in Fairfield, Illinois, handing him a basket of roses.

And neither did the local papers explain to readers everything the KKK really stood for. Describing the big Petaluma Hill Road ceremony, the PD mentioned in passing that new members were told support “supremacy for the white race, separation of church and state, and rigid law enforcement.” Of the same event the Petaluma Courier said the Klan pledge was about “Americanism” and law and order.

The most information came the Petaluma Argus, which offered a lengthy account of a late 1924 Klan recruitment speech given at the high school. “It is a white, native born, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, patriotic fraternity. Orthodox Jews cannot join because they do not believe in the divinity of Christ.” (The speaker apparently forgot to mention Catholics were a main target of the hate group.)

The Klan was also a militia, he told the packed auditorium. “All Klansmen may be called upon by the governor at any time to keep law and order; the sheriff may call on them. In case of emergency, the governor may call on the Klansmen of California and over 350,000 would be ready to march at sunrise.” The speaker did not say what they expected to be called upon to defend, but did mention they wanted “to see that the immigration law is enforced.” He said they were currently “fighting appalling condition in the negro sections in many large cities,” according to the Courier, while noting there were over three million “half-breeds” in America. He stated the Klan “does not practice acts of violence,” but added “flagrant law violators should be hanged twice.” And there, Gentle Reader, was the dog whistle to those in the audience who thought it might be kinda fun to wear a disguise and act out as a homicidal vigilante.

The speaker even flashed some Klan humor by pointing out their hoods only had holes for the “watchful eye” because a klansman was supposed to stay silent. “How many of you husbands in Petaluma would like for your wife to have a silent tongue?” The newspaper felt compelled to add that he said it “jokingly.” There were also local nods: “It is just an necessary to raise good children as it is to raise good chickens,” he said, inviting boys to join their group for kids called the “Kluckers.”

Klan activity declined quickly after that in Sonoma county, as it did elsewhere in the nation. In 1925 there were only two ceremonies reported in the papers, one across the road from the Vallejo Adobe in Petaluma and another in a field south of Barham avenue in Santa Rosa, which is presumably the CostCo shopping center today. Attendance was lower because Napa and Vallejo klansmen “were reported to have become confused on the road and failed to arrive.”

The last mention of the KKK locally came in 1930, when a motorcade stopped in Petaluma after a ceremony somewhere in Napa. While the Klan’s first ceremony there in 1923 drew a thousand people, the best they could now muster was a hundred. The klansmen and their family had supper in Petaluma and left, but not before scattering everywhere their little cardboard red crosses. Once intended to express power and incur fear, it was now only trash littering the streets.

“Sooner or Later” cartoon from the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender, 1923


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As the presidential election approaches, the Santa Rosa paper is relentlessly attacking the Republican candidate. Readers are told he lies about his past to impress voters and he won’t listen to others because he foolishly believes he’s always right. His own party wants nothing to do with him. His proposals are simplistic as well as unworkable and unconstitutional (a document he’s obviously never read) and he will destroy the country if he gets within a mile of the White House. Plus, he looks funny.

The newspaper is the Sonoma Democrat. The Republican is Abraham Lincoln. The year is 1860.

The Sonoma Democrat was the direct ancestor of the Press Democrat and before, during and after the Civil War was relentlessly pro-Confederate. Most of Sonoma County shared those sentiments to some degree – this was the only place in the state which did not vote for Lincoln either time. But editor Thomas L. Thompson shaped the Santa Rosa newspaper into the sort of rag that might have been published in the Deep South at that time, not only pro-slavery but astonishingly racist. Now that the Democrat is online we can search it and find there were at least 330 uses of the “n-word” between 1857 and 1886. To squeeze that many hateful slurs into a four-page weekly reveals Thompson to be an awful person and probably a little crazy. There’s no question he was certifiably nuts when he committed suicide in 1898; the coroner’s jury ruled he was “mentally deranged” after ranting that the Odd Fellows’ Lodge was out to get him.

(RIGHT: Abraham Lincoln May 20, 1860, two days after winning the Republican party nomination)

In the run-up to the election, sample items from the paper transcribed below show Thompson fed his readers a steady diet of anti-Lincoln, anti-abolitionist bile. To make sense of some of these articles it’s important to know this was an odd four-way election with both Northern and Southern Democrats in the running. Besides Lincoln, the official Democratic Party candidate was Stephen A. Douglas, who thought he could somehow forge a grand compromise to keep the United States patched together; Southern Democrat Breckinridge, who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right; and third-party candidate Bell, who wanted to appease the South by ignoring the slavery issue altogether.

The Sonoma Democrat introduced readers to Lincoln that summer with ad hominem attacks. Lincoln had “neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye” and lied about being a rail-splitter in his youth, as people in that part of Illinois made their fences from pieces of wood picked up in swamps (having grown up near there, I can attest there are no prairie swamps). During his service in the Black Hawk war, the paper claimed he forgot to untether his horse and fell with the animal when he tried to ride away; believing his horse had been brought down by an ambush, “Old Abe” tried to surrender to the non-existant Indians.

Sonoma county readers were told that some delegates at the Republican convention were “mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln.” Items reprinted from like-minded journals insisted he was a dead weight on the ballot and could not possibly win – although his inevitable loss in New York state would cause chaos, as the outcome would then be decided by the House of Representatives (he won New York by nearly eight points).

But more than anything else, Thompson kept hammering that Lincoln was a “Black Republican.” In Thompson’s argot, this was the worst thing he could call someone because it meant they believed African-Americans were human beings with legal rights. Whatever lip service Thompson and his ilk gave to state’s rights and the constitutionality of slave-holding, its rotten core was always racist hatred.

On election day Lincoln got 1,236 votes in Sonoma county, behind Breckinridge’s 1,466. Petaluma was the only town Lincoln won, with 375 voting for him. Santa Rosa cast 91 ballots for Lincoln and 205 for Breckinridge.

Thompson hunkered down in the final weeks of 1860, bitterly spinning a story of gloom and doom. Stock markets were in a “panic” and banks in two southern states were expecting to be closed. The “free negroes, their aiders and abettors” were plotting to avenge John Brown’s death with help from the Republicans. There was a recurrent theme in the dispatches from the pro-southern papers that the South was keeping a steady keel while the North was falling apart. Charleston supposedly would not allow steerage passengers on steamboats coming from the North to disembark unless there was a guarantee they would not become vagrants.

Thompson also launched a trope that the North was trying to nullify the Constitution and forcing the Southern states to secede against their wishes. Failing to return runaway slaves was nothing short of treason, according to Thompson, who hoped that Congress would mete out punishment “if the present disunion cloud should blow over.” There is the Confederacy mindset neatly summed: 1) we’re the victims; 2) we have the only true understanding of the Constitution; 3) we will never, ever, compromise on slavery. For these reasons and more, one dispatch from Alabama concluded: “Revolution is inevitable.”



DOUGLAS AND LINCOLN. — The men are entirely dissimilar. Douglas is a thick set, finely built man, with an air of self confidence. Lincoln is a tall (six feet four), lank man, awkward, apparently diffident, and when not speaking has neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 21, 1860


News from the Atlantic states.

The Overland stage with the St. Louis mails of the 21st ult. arrived at San Francisco on Monday last. On Friday, the 18th May, the Chicago Convention nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, for President, on the third ballot, and Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine, for Vice President, on the second ballot. The nomination of Lincoln struck the Republicans of the Middle and Eastern States cold. A forced enthusiasm, however, was got up in some cities…The New Yorkers are as mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln. They say they can’t begin to carry New York with Lincoln, and the dead weight of their abominable Legislature added. Bets are made that Lincoln will lose N. Y. by 20,000…

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1860

…Abe Lincoln has declared, that if he were in the halls of Congress, and the question of the abolition of slavery were to come up, ho would vote for it in spite of the Dred Scott decision. In other words he declared that the highest Tribunal of the land was no authority for him, that he would disregard all principles of law, justice and order, and would by the mere force of physical superiority compel nearly one half of the states of this Confederacy to change their social and domestic institutions, at the beck and nod of a tyranous majority; and this is the candidate of the party who with emulous ostentation denounce the South as disunionists and traitors. This is the party who daily shout and swagger about union and nationality, who complaining of intolerance on the part of the South, deny to her all toleration, all equality, all justice, all rights under the Constitution, and insult her with threats of coercion if she dares resist their sovereign will…

– Sonoma Democrat editorial, July 12 1860

The Pittsburg Post says: An old citizen who traveled in Illinois thirty years ago, and was especially familiar with the district of country where Abe Lincoln resided, says that Abe never split a rail in his life. In those days, he says, the people never thought of such a thing as splitting rails. They went into the swamps and cut hoop-poles and saplings for fences, and used them, round, as nature made them.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860

At the time of the Black Hawk war, ‘Abe’ enlisted. The company numbered about eight mounted men. They started off in fine spirits to engage in the deadly fray. Arriving at a point on the prairies, about two hundred miles from the Indian lines, the party bivouacked for the night, picketed their horses, and slept on their arms…During the night, the sentinel, whoso mental caliber was in no measure proportioned to his patriotism, imagined he saw the Indians! and immediately discharged his old fusee. The camp was aroused in an instant, and each sprang to his saddle. ‘Old Abe’ shot out in the darkness on his charger like lightning, until the ropes ‘hove taut,’ when over he went, horse and himself, headlong! Thinking himself caught in an Indian ambush, he gathered up, mounted, putting spurs to his horse, took the opposite shute, but soon brought up as before, horse and rider tumbling headlong. ‘Old Abe’ got up, thinking he was surrounded! and shouted, ‘Gentlemen Indians! I surrender without a word. I have not a word to offer. All I want is quarter!’ There ‘Old Abe’s” first campaign ended!’

– Sonoma Democrat, September 13 1860

The conservative and Union loving men of the North are making every effort to defeat Lincoln. All parties concede that should Lincoln lose New York his defeat inevitable.


By reference to our Eastern news today, it will be seen that there has been a complete fusion between all the elements of opposition to the Black Republicans in New York-—the vote of that State to be cast for Douglas, Breckinridge or Bell, as they shall receive the highest popular vote. This will undoubtedly throw the election into the House of Representatives, and secures beyond question the defeat of Lincoln.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 27 1860

…On one side stands Lincoln, proclaiming the social, moral and political superiority of the North over the South, and calling upon men to enter into an “irrepressibly conflict” for the complete and entire destruction of the Southern States. On the other hand we have Breckinridge proclaiming the equality of the States, the harmony of commerce and industry, the sacred and constitutional right of self-government.–N.Y. Herald.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1860

REPUBLICAN MEETING.– Hand-bills have been staring us in the face upon every corner for the last week, announcing that James Churchman, Esquire, of Nevada, would address the irrepressibles of this place yesterday. Well, the eventful evening arrived and so repaired to the Court House expecting to hear the Democracy entirely demolished. We found assembled exactly seven Republicans, most of whom were from abroad; there may have been as many as twelve, since there were three or four persons there whom we did not know. There were besides these some fifteen or twenty snuff-colored gentlemen, and about seventy-five Breckinridge and Bell men. The irrepressible gentleman had already commenced when we arrived, so that we did not hear the first part of his harangue. We listened to him, however, about three quarters of an hour, and we must say, we heard the most pithless, pointless batch of misrepresentations we have ever listened to. Mr, Churchman’s address is pleasing, and his manner well calculated to attract tho attention of a promiscuous assemblage; but he did not make a single point during the time we listened to him, that deserves the space it would take to refute it.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 18 1860

KEEP IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE, that Abraham Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico and declared it unnecessary and unjust.

Keep it before the people, that the Republicans are in favor of placing negroes on an equality with the whites, and in many of the free States sanction amalgamation.

Keep it before the people, that in Massachusetts the Republicans proscribed foreign-born citizens and attempted to deprive them of the right of suffrage, and would have succeeded had the Democrats not opposed it.

Keep it before the people, that in the same State negroes were elected delegates to conventions and assisted in nominating Republican candidates for Congress.

Keep it before the people, that the infidel Garrison, a leading Black Republican, unblushingly declares, that the Constitution of the United Slates “it a covenant with death and an agreement with hell!”

Keep it before the the people, that this same Republican leader Garrison, blasphemously asserts, that if “God had the power to abolish slavery and would not, he wae a very great scoundrel!”

– Sonoma Democrat, November 1 1860

The contest is over, and from the partial returns so far received, it is doubtful if the State has not gone againat us. In this County the Democracy have scarcely deserved anything else. At a time when every element of opposition was combining against them, when every energy was needed to secure success, they have remained passive and indifferent until they have actually allowed the election to go by default…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1860

San Francisco, Nov. 13th, 1860. Editors Sonoma County Democrat: The great battle is over, and although it has resulted in partial defeat, let not Democrats be disheartened, but rather let them organize and prepare themselves better for the next struggle, when the now prevailing party will have been “played out,” as were their immediate successors. Although six days have passed since the election, little is yet known of the result. According to latest accounts Lincoln is about 1100 ahead, but this seems doubtful, as it is strongly suspected that the despatches are not much to be relied on, having been gotten up more for betting purposes than for the diffusion of reliable statistical information. The news from the East will be sent with the greatest despatch by the Pony, and will be received here the fore part of next week. The telegraphing facilities of the Eastern States will be tested to their utmost, but it is generally expected that the general result will be known by that time. How annoying it is that the knowledge of a great event must be kept from us for days when a few hundred miles of telegraphic wire would put us in immediate possession of the all-desired information.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1860

The news by the Pony confirms the unwelcome intelligence of Lincoln’s election as the next President of the United States. At the same time it brings the news of movements in several of the Southern States, which indicate a fixed determination on their part to remain no longer in the Union. Their perfect and sovereign right to secede, if they desire to do so, must be conceded from the very nature and formation of our government. There are but two means by which any Union of States can be maintained or preserved; one is a community of interests, the other a preponderance of force. The former is the only means which was ever contemplated, in the formation of our Constitution, for the very objects of its formation, viz: “To establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty,” utterly preclude the idea of using force for its preservation, for this use of force would at once defeat every object for which the Union was formed. If these States, therefore, in their sovereign capacity, see proper to secede from the Union, there is no power under the Constitution to prevent them; and any attempt to coerce them would be as unconstitutional as it would be unholy, unjust and futile. This movement may be one pregnant with mighty consequences. There has never been a period in the history of our government when there was so much necessity for wise, deliberate and cautious procedure, and it is well that the people should weigh and consider the causes which have led to these untoward results, and prepare to meet the mighty events which loom up so portentiously in the future, for, as has been well said, it is for them to decide what course they will sustain the administration in pursuing toward those states which may secede.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 29 1860

The excitement in the South continues, accompanied with general depression in the markets and trade, amounting to a panic. There has been a general decline in stocks at New York, and a great increase in rates of exchange at Chicago. There is a tightness at St. Louis, and perfect derangement in monetary affairs South. The South Carolina and Georgia Legislatures have prepared for a suspension of their banks. No suspensions have yet taken place. The Mayor of Charleston has notified the agents of Northern steamers that he would not permit the landing of steerage passengers, unless the companies guaranteed their maintenance, if they became vagrants. Merchants have now goods on hand, but no new orders will be given to the North, except such as are indispensable.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 6 1860

Negro Lincoln Clubs. — We copy the following advertisement from the Pittsburg Dispatch, of October 16th, an influential Black Republican organ: “Colored Men of Pittsburg and Vicinity!–You are requested to meet and form yourselves into Wide Awake Clubs immediately, for the purpose of farthering the interest of the friend of the human race, Abraham Lincoln. Already New York has spoken in favor of universal suffrage. And if colored men would have their rights, they should move for the success of their friends. John Brown, the hero of Harper’s Ferry, is yet to be avenged.”

Is it strange that the South should bo excited und alarmed in the face of such proceedings, sanctioned and encouraged by the Black Republicans of the free States? Does not prudence dictate that they should be prepared to meet and repel a second John Brown raid? Do not the free negroes, their aiders and abettors, contemplate a second foray into the Southern States? Do the negroes not hope to avenge the death of John Brown, and have they not reason to anticipate assistance and protection from the Republicans?

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1860

WHO ARE THE DISUNIONISTS?– The New York Herald, of the 10th ult., says: We publish below an account of the Northern Slates which prohibit their officials and citizens from aiding in the execution of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, and which by their action, have boldly nullified the Constitution of the United States…It will be seen from the above that the Northern States are nearly all in a position of practical disunion–that is, they have refused to sustain the constitution which their fathers adopted.

LEGISLATING FOR TREASON.–If the present disunion cloud should blow over, as all lovers of their country sincerely trust that it may, we hope Congress will make a point of re-enacting, at an early day, some law defining treason, and providing sufficient means for its prevention or punishment…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1860

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Quiz time: Name the most prominent African-American ever to live in Sonoma county. Name the wealthiest woman in 19th century San Francisco. Name the person your grandparents and great-grandparents believed was actually practicing black magic. All three are Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant.

(RIGHT: Detail of a 1902 portrait of Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant at age 87)

Remarkably little  about her is known with certainty. She was born sometime between 1814 and 1817. She may have been a slave (or not). She refused to answer to the racist nickname, “Mammy” and the portrait most often used is not even a photograph of her at all, but Queen Emma of Hawaii. All that’s really certain is that she always carried herself with poise and was light-skinned, able to pass as white whenever she wanted – or then again, maybe her face was darker but had “European” features. But you can bet she was likely far smarter than anyone else she ever met.

An incident that happened at Glen Ellen in 1913 was originally planned to be retold here as part of the previous item about our ancestor’s readiness, just a century ago, to pull out their guns and blast away at each other. But as I prepared to write it up, it became clear that this shooting could be of interest to scholars as it reveals previously unknown details related to her story, and the canon of published work on Pleasant is so puny that even small bits may help.

Nearly all that’s available about her – both in print and online – is a thin weave of myths, canards and twice-told bits which fall apart with the slightest tug of fact checking. On the Internet this thumbnail bio offers a pretty good capsule view of her life. Further research is found in The Making of “Mammy Pleasant” which is available at the Sonoma County library (the introduction is particularly worth reading).

But most of what is still commonly said about her comes from novelizations of her life and times written by Helen Holdredge, who turned out a handful of history-based potboilers in the 1950s. Sources are rarely mentioned in “Mammy Pleasant” and “Mammy Pleasant’s Partner,” making it impossible for the reader to know how much was simply made up. The author sensationalized the story without restraint, always seeking to reveal malevolent motivations behind Pleasant’s every deed. And often staining those pages is Holdredge’s racism; not content to simply mention a newspaper at the time once called Pleasant “queen of the voodoos,” Holdredge spun out a three page yarn of the supposed ritual which gave her “absolute control over the Negroes.” Thanks to the availability today of digitized newspapers and other sources we can debunk some of the claims in her books but gaps will always remain, in part because Holdredge possibly destroyed some primary source material before donating her collection to the San Francisco Library.

This is not the place to attempt a full profile of Mary Ellen Pleasant, but here are some biographical highlights:

INSTANT ENTREPRENUER   When Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in 1852 California there were over nine men to every woman. Demand was high for domestic service skills; her first job here was cooking for $500/month (over $24,000/mo today). She followed by operating laundries and boardinghouses which catered to the richest men in town, presumably giving her the opportunity to pick up investment tips.
FREEDOM FIGHTER   Mary Ellen established the western terminus of the underground railroad and was as important an activist in the movement as Harriet Tubman, aiding hundreds of slaves to find transport to new lives in Canada and the West. She was an avid supporter of John Brown and involved with financing Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. He was carrying a note from her when he was captured, which is the Believe-it-or-Not! connection between her and Santa Rosa’s Comstock family; Harvey B. Hurd was in the leadership of another group supporting John Brown and Hurd had provided the famed abolitionist with his own clothes to replace Brown’s tattered suit. While it’s unknown if Hurd and Pleasant met (and it is quite possible since they were only 300 miles apart during 1859 when she was in Ontario), her note was found in a pocket which once belonged to Hilliard Comstock’s grandfather.
FINANCIAL WIZARD   Back in post-Civil War San Francisco, Mary Ellen Pleasant resumed her investments with mining and real estate deals, building one of the great fortunes in San Francisco during the Gilded Age. She did not conceal her wealth, riding through the streets in a carriage attended by a coachman and footman dressed in top hats and white breeches. In 1877 she designed and had built a mansion on a lot covering two city blocks (see photos below). It was said to cost $100,000 and she spared no expense in decorating; tapestries, gold bronze chandeliers and a clock over seven feet high were some of the features that left visitors gasping.
HUMANIST, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST   Even Pleasant’s critics would concede she used her wealth and influence to great good. She marshalled a constant stream of protégées, both black and white, towards good jobs and good marriages while finding homes for unwanted babies. In the late 1860s she successfully sued the streetcar companies in San Francisco so African-Americans would be allowed to ride the trolleys.
“MAMMY” IS BORN   Pleasant was a key player in a scandalous legal battle that dragged through most of the 1880s with papers nationally reporting every dramatic moment in the courtrooms, including an incident where someone pulled a Bowie knife on a Supreme Court justice at a hearing. At issue was whether socialite Sarah Hill was indeed married to Senator William Sharon, one of the wealthiest men in America, who claimed she was just his West Coast mistress. Pleasant’s connection with the woman isn’t clear, but Mary Ellen paid her legal fees, testified several times and attended every court appearance, sitting next to Hill. Pleasant’s reputation was collateral damage as the well-connected senator sought to smear Hill in the press. Accusations flew she was a prostitute and Pleasant was the whorehouse madam, and it was whispered “Mammy” had bewitched the senator with a love potion. The trials and demeaning press coverage set the stage for her downfall a few years later, when she would face some of the same judges in her own lawsuits.

Central to our story is the long and complex relationship between Mary Ellen and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Bell. Before he met Pleasant, Thomas was already wealthy as part of the 1860s “Bank Crowd” in San Francisco, the insiders controlling nearly everything connected with Comstock Lode mining. In the 1870s he partnered with Pleasant and their mutual fortunes skyrocketed further still. He moved into her mansion which presumably raised some eyebrows, although a few years earlier he had been staying with another (male) partner from the Bank Crowd. Whether or not Thomas and Mary Ellen shared an intimate relationship is completely speculative.

Thomas’ wife, Teresa, is almost as much a riddle as Mary Ellen Pleasant. Most of her backstory comes from the unreliable Helen Holdredge, whose books claim she was another young protégée, groomed to be Bell’s mistress and nanny to his adopted children. (Another part of the Holdredge story that makes no sense is that Mary Ellen supposedly tricked him into believing he had to adopt them because they were his kids from prostitutes and mistresses.) After Teresa and Thomas married, all of them were living together in the 30-room manse where the fiction was Pleasant was employed as housekeeper. Altogether there were six children, but it’s unclear how many were born to the couple or were adopted.

Family life shifted to Sonoma county after Pleasant bought 985 acres near Glen Ellen in 1891. Included was one of the finest vineyards in California and a two-story ranch house, which she remodeled and probably expanded. She named the place Beltane Ranch, which survives today with the home turned into a bed-and-breakfast. (Sadly, the inn’s website includes only a few words about her and includes the usual dubious facts; for more information see this  history of the Beltane Ranch.) As usual, she made a savvy investment. Train service through the Valley of the Moon from the Tiburon ferry had just started the year before, and would soon transform the area into a favorite getaway for San Francisco elites, with the likes of sugar magnate Rudolph Spreckels raising polo ponies nearby.

The Bells and Pleasant played at being country squires but it only lasted about a year. The exact start of Mary Ellen’s downfall can be dated to October 16, 1892, when Thomas Bell died after falling over a railing in their San Francisco mansion.

Mary Ellen and Teresa continued their same roles, Teresa primarily at Beltane and Mary E. in the city. They co-parented the children and Pleasant continued handling all financial matters, even to the point of clothes shopping for Teresa.

They would also spend the next ten years in courtrooms fighting Thomas’ creditors, Pleasant’s creditors and finally each other. And except for the occasional sojourn to the courthouse in Santa Rosa, most of the legal battles were decided in San Francisco in front of Judge Coffey, who also presided over the endless William Sharon case.

Thomas and Mary Ellen’s investments were deeply entangled and became even more twisted after his death. For example, Mary Ellen apparently tried to hide assets by giving Teresa the deed to half of Beltane in 1894 but five years later, creditors convinced a judge to declare Pleasant the sole owner of the ranch. An old unrecorded deed conveying the San Francisco mansion to Pleasant had to be wrestled from Teresa’s grasp. Both were taking out mortgages on properties they may or may not have owned. It was an epic mess, impossible to straighten out today because the probate records for Thomas’ estate were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Matters were made worse when 23 year-old eldest son Fred Bell petitioned the court in 1897 to have his mother removed as guardian of the children, claiming Teresa was an abusive alcoholic and being manipulated by the “Voudon woman.” He lobbed escalating charges at Pleasant in following months: She had stolen jewelry, embezzled thousands from the estate and ultimately hinted she had murdered his father, although he hedged by adding that while he was in the house at the time, he was too drunk to say for sure.

The crisis came in the spring of 1899. A petty quarrel at Beltane Ranch between Mary Ellen and Teresa escalated into thermonuclear war. Police were called.  Mary Ellen – somewhere past 85 years old at the time – locked herself in her room as Teresa, sprightly at age 51 or 52, struggled to push in the door. You kids.

Mary Ellen packed her trunks and left Beltane, never to return. Shortly after returning to the San Francisco mansion she found police at the door with an eviction notice from Teresa – a curious twist since at that time Pleasant was the owner of record of both the mansion and Beltane. She moved out of there, too.

Pleasant spent most of her final years at a small house in what is now South San Francisco. She died impoverished in 1904 at the home of a couple who buried her in their family’s cemetery plot in Napa.

Even after Mary Ellen Pleasant’s death the lawsuits continued. Her probate wasn’t closed for six years, when it was decided (by Judge Coffey, again) she left Beltane to the couple who nursed her at the end. That spurred new suits which went on for much of the 1910s. A little tin box of Pleasant’s was found in a safe deposit vault, and in 1912 Teresa and a small army of lawyers crowded together over a courtroom table as it was unlocked. Instead of the jewels Teresa expected, there was only “a bunch of faded papers,” according to the Chronicle, including personal letters and some old deeds. Naturally, Teresa tried to claim they belonged to her.

From published snippets of Teresa’s diaries it is shown she had a burning hatred of Mary Ellen from 1899 onward. But why? Surely she still wasn’t nursing a grudge over the squabble at the ranch concerning which one of them owned an armchair. It certainly went beyond a kind of Monopoly game competition of who had claim to the most houses or even any particular place. No, she wanted to see “Mammy” Pleasant utterly destroyed; her hatred was visceral, and I believe it was driven by a single person: Bayard Saville.




Two views of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s mansion at the southwest corner of Bush and Octavia in San Francisco. At top is a 1926 photograph of the southern face showing the original home designed by Pleasant following the Second Empire/Mansard style. Below is a 1925 photo of the building adjoining it on the northwest side, giving the residence an overall count of thirty rooms. An early photo does not show the addition on the north side, so that building, constructed in the Italian Renaissance style popular around the Civil War, was moved there at some time after Pleasant’s home was built in 1877. The sprawling mansion was called the “House of Mystery” and “House of Secrets” by the press. Both photos courtesy of UC/Berkeley, Bancroft Library. CLICK or TAP to enlarge

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